To reach the butterfly artist’s house, you have to navigate a maze of mud-brick homes near the wide, brown Oubangui River. Four years ago Muslim rebels and Christian militias rampaged through, fighting for control of Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic. Today the neighborhood is filled with squealing children playing soccer and chattering vendors hawking peanuts and eggs, avocados and mangoes, wild honey and peppercorns. But violence still plagues the city, and the people here remain keenly alert to the sounds of gunshots and military helicopters.
Philippe Andé is oblivious to all of that. A slight, balding man, he hunches over a worktable covered in butterfly wings—a constellation of electric colors, flamboyant shapes, and exotic patterns. The Central African Republic is home to 597 identified species, and it’s common to suddenly find yourself amid a cloud of the silent, fluttering creatures, as though you’d wandered into a flurry of confetti. Andé, a farmer, catches them in his fields and sends boys to collect them in the hills and along the river.
With tweezers, a razor blade, and rubber cement, he painstakingly arranges the tissue-thin wings into radiant scenes of Central African life, each a miniature stained glass window. A man catches a speckled green fish in a swirling turquoise river. Women in orange dresses with sleeping babies tied to their backs pound cassavas into flour. A boy climbs a tree to harvest coconuts. There are fields filled with cotton; portraits of elephants, gorillas, parrots, antelope; even a faceted diamond, the country’s most famous export.